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Famous Therapists in Fiction

Famous therapists in fiction

Real people often pop up in fiction, whether contemporary or historically based. Given the extent of his influence on twentieth century thought, it’s not surprising that Freud is the famous therapist I’ve encountered most often among the almost sixty fictional therapists in my collection, although “most often” means he appears in three novels and is relevant to a fourth.

In this article we’ll also meet a fictionalised version of his daughter Anna Freud and his colleague and collaborator Josef Breuer, as well as the famous psychoanalytic “cases” Little Hans, Daniel Paul Schreber and Anna O. Finally, we’ll drop in on a fictionalised WHR Rivers, the anthropologist, neurologist and psychologist working with shell-shocked soldiers during World War I.

In When Nietzsche Wept, set in the Vienna of 1882, Freud is still undergoing medical training and a frequent visitor to the home of the older and more experienced Josef Breuer. As well as an enthusiastic collector of dreams, Freud is fascinated by his mentor’s account of stumbling upon a form of talking therapy in his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim:

“It’s beautiful!” Freud had risen and was pacing in his excitement. “The theoretical implications are breathtaking. And completely compatible with Helmholtzian theory! Once the excess cerebral electrical charge responsible for symptoms is discharged through emotional catharsis, then the symptoms behave properly and promptly vanish! But you seem so calm, Josef. This is a major discovery. You must publish this case.” (p42)

Breuer protests that it’s not the time, not least because the unfortunate Bertha – whose case was published about a dozen years later under the pseudonym Anna O in Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria – suffered such a serious relapse she was admitted to a sanatorium. But he also can’t confess to his obsessive infatuation with the attractive young woman, until he bares his soul to an impoverished philosopher whom he’s treating for severe and disabling headaches.

These imagined meetings between Friedrich Nietzsche and Josef Breuer lie at the heart of the real-life psychotherapist Irvin Yalom’s novel. To protect the man’s pride, while hoping to alleviate his suicidal despair, Breuer invites Nietzsche to counsel him. Not only does this relieve the doctor of his obsessions, but the philosopher’s sharp mind advances the developing theory:

… Perhaps our mistake from the beginning has been to neglect the meaning of your obsession. You claimed you cured each of Bertha’s hysterical symptoms by discovering its origin … Perhaps you were mistaken. Perhaps you cured Bertha by discovering not the origin, but the meaning of each symptom! Perhaps”— here Nietzsche almost whispered as if he were conveying a secret of great significance —“perhaps symptoms are messengers of a meaning and will vanish only when their message is comprehended …” (p220-221)

Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist tells the story of seventeen-year-old Franz, employed as a Viennese tobacconist’s apprentice, who forms an unlikely friendship with that famous cigar-smoker Sigmund Freud. Beginning in the late summer of 1937 prior to Hitler’s annexation of Austria when he and his family must flee, Freud advises the young man to follow his dreams both literally in writing them down and figuratively in pursuing the slightly older Bohemian woman to whom he has formed an attraction. In this extract, they’re discussing the process and purpose of psychoanalysis:

‘If one only ever spoke the truth, the consultations would be as dry and empty as little deserts. Truth has a smaller part to play than people think. That’s the case in life as well as analysis. Patients talk about whatever comes to mind, and I listen. Or sometimes it’s the other way round: I talk about whatever comes to mind, and the patients listen. We talk and are silent and are silent and talk and, quite incidentally, explore the dark side of the soul together.’

‘And how do you go about that?’

‘We painstakingly grope through the darkness so that at least here and there we may bump into something useful.’

‘And people have to lie down for that?’

‘You could do it standing up as well, but it’s more comfortable lying down.’ (p127)

Young Franz also gets a glimpse of Sigmund’s daughter, Anna, disciple and famous analyst in her own right. In Sight, her novel addressing the development of various technologies through which we look into ourselves and others, Jessie Greengrass picks up the story of the father-daughter relationship from their flat in Vienna to the family’s migration to London. The unnamed narrator, introduced to psychoanalysis through her grandmother’s profession, ponders Anna’s early life as the youngest, and initially least favoured, of the six children for whom:

'by the time Anna first knocked on her father’s door it seemed only the obvious thing to do. Anna’s anxious loneliness, her fixation on her father’s attention, and Freud’s fear that in someone else’s care she might be lost to him, left no option but that the two of them turn to one another; and so six times a week for the next four years Anna opened her father’s door and, stepping across the threshold, lay down upon the couch, and together they examined her until, piece by closely studied piece, they had taken her apart and built from what she had been something they could both be happy with' (p120-1)

On the theme of children being the subject of an analysis by their own fathers, Jessie Greengrass also considers another of Freud’s famous case studies, Little Hans, whose real-life name was Herbert. The narrator is haunted by the horror of the child’s meeting with his father and Freud:

'made to feel in ignorance of oneself, to be stripped of those privileges subjectivity brings – a still, sure place to stand; a premise; the right to know one’s mind – and I think of them walking home together, Herbert and his father, hurrying back through busy streets towards the safety of home, the boy whose trust had been opened like a nut, split to see what mechanism it was that made it grow, falling into step beside his analyst father, who far from being the negation of fear was now its subject; and I can think only of how thin the world must have seemed to him, how fragile' (p91)

Although it doesn't contain a famous therapist, Alex Pheby’s novel, Playthings, is relevant here because it fictionalises a “case” of paramount importance in psychoanalytic circles. Daniel Paul Schreber was a retired High Court judge who, in 1903, published a memoir of his psychotic breakdown and subsequent incarceration in a mental hospital. Both Freud and Lacan were intrigued by Schreber’s predicament and published their own interpretations of his account. While novelist Alex Pheby points to various possible psychological and social precursors of his illness, his character Schreber is particularly disturbed by the oedipal sins against his father:

'..he knew that he was stained, as a man is always stained, and no office or garment could stand between him and his own judgement. It was not those small things of which he was accused, the deaths he had personally ordered, or the weeping, or the misery, but a much greater crime: a crime of the soul, to have lived when his father had died, when his brother had died, to have exceeded his proper authority.' (p178)

While not the most famous therapist in real life, the pioneering anthropologist, neurologist and psychologist working with shell-shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart Hospital, WHR Rivers, portrayed in Pat Barker’s Regeneration is one of the better-known fictional therapists. Through a dramatisation of his real-life encounter with the poet Siegfried Sassoon, readers are challenged to consider their positions, not only in relation to war, but also about the ethics of psychological and psychiatric intervention that stifles protest by enabling people to function in an insane world. After witnessing another professional deliver a more brutal treatment than the talking therapy he has been trying to develop, Rivers reluctantly concludes he’s also:

' the business of controlling people. Each of them fitted young men back into the role of warrior, a role they had – however unconsciously – rejected. He’d found himself wondering once or twice recently what possible meaning the restoration of mental health could have in relation to his work. Normally a cure implies that the patient will no longer engage in behaviour that is clearly self-destructive. But in present circumstances, recovery meant the resumption of activities that were not merely self-destructive but positively suicidal. But then in a war nobody is a free agent.' (p238)

An uncomfortable thought for therapists at any point in history, perhaps?

Have you encountered any famous therapists in fiction? How well do you feel they were portrayed?

This article is the third in an ongoing series on fictional therapists; my next, (probably) on fictional therapists as friends or family members, is due to appear in September. If there’s a topic you’d like to see addressed, do let me know via the comments.

I’m also keen to extend my list of fictional therapists; if you’ve come across any I might have missed, you can follow the link to check if they’re already in my collection.

Author's Bio


After a twenty-five year career as a clinical psychologist, and extensive personal therapy, Anne Goodwin now explores issues of attachment, mental health and well-being in fiction. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, is scheduled for publication in November 2018. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter

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